‘When heaven and Earth split apart’: Zao Wou-Ki’s 21.10.63

Offered in the ONE  sale in Hong Kong on 10 July, 21.10.63  is one of the largest works in Zao Wou-Ki’s explosive ‘Hurricane’ series, which marked a creative peak in the artist’s career


Zao Wou-Ki (Zhao Wuji, 1920-2013), 21.10.63, 1963. Oil on canvas. 200 x 180 cm (78¾ x 70⅞ in). Estimate: in excess of $10,000,000. Offered in ONE on 10 July at Christie’s in Hong Kong

In 1959, Zao Wou-Ki (1920-2013) embarked on a series of paintings that had an enthralling energy and directness. The culmination of a decade of experimentation that had begun in Paris in the early 1950s, the explosions of swirling reds, browns, blacks and whites came to be known as the ‘Hurricane’ paintings. 

According to Christie’s specialist Jacky Ho, ‘They marked a creative peak in the artist’s career, when he achieved a fully mature personal style.’ On 10 July Christie’s Hong Kong will be auctioning one of the largest works in the series, 21.10.63.

‘It’s not easy to break free. Everybody is bound by tradition — I by two’

Zao was born in Beijing in 1920 and studied in Hangzhou under Lin Fengmian (1900-1991), a pioneer of modern Chinese painting who promoted a synthesis of European and Chinese art. Zao shared this outlook and, in 1948, he and his wife Lanlan moved to Paris. 

In Europe, Zao explored a form of gestural existentialism promoted by a group of avant-garde artists that included his friend, Pierre Soulages (b. 1919). Then, in 1957, on a trip to New York, the artist came into contact with the Abstract Expressionists.


Zao Wou-Ki, photographed by Henri Cartier-Bresson in the early 1970s. Photo: © Henri Cartier-Bresson/Magnum Photos

Zao recognised in both styles a heroic desire to convey intense emotion, but it was the ambition of the New Yorkers and the sheer size of their canvases that inspired the 36-year-old artist to paint on a grander scale when he returned to France. It was a gamble, as he recognised himself. ‘It’s not easy to break free. Everybody is bound by tradition — I by two,’ he said.

‘An extraordinary union between soul and matter’

The first ‘Hurricane’ paintings, which were exhibited at the Kootz Gallery in the USA and the Galerie de France in Paris, were instantly arresting. The amorphous sense of movement they conveyed, and the restless energy it revealed, appeared so transcendently lyrical that years later, the French politician Dominique de Villepin was inspired to describe it as, ‘a possession, some sort of communication with the world, an extraordinary union between soul and matter’.

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Love, space and freedom

The series also came at an important personal moment for Zao. It was on his travels through America and Hong Kong between 1957-1958 that he met the actor Chan May-Kan, who became his second wife. They returned to France, where the artist bought a studio warehouse in Paris which gave him the space and freedom to work on a larger scale.

21.10.63  encapsulates the incomparable beauty of the moment when heaven and Earth split apart,’ says Ho. ‘It was the moment the master abstractionist came of age.’

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